When Berlin-based Robin Rhode was a high school student in South Africa, he experienced what many kids around the world shutter to think about: hazing. But this type of initiation into the school’s “cool club” may have shaped his career most, and he credits the creative peer pressure as “really great.”
“We would steal the chalk from the teachers’ classroom,” Rhode explained. “Then, we would take the chalk, and in various areas—corners or on the toilet walls—we would draw elementary chalk objects, usually to scale, and then we would force young pupils to engage and interact with these drawings.” The chalk drawings would range in scenarios, such as drawing a candle on the wall, and having a younger kid blow out the candle, or drawing a bike on the wall, and having a peer ride the bike. “Once they engaged or interacted, they became accepted into the school subculture,” said Rhode.
He walked us through the mental process as to why this was done, saying, ”Why did we steal chalk? Because there were no other forms; no spray cans. It was the most simplistic, efficient, and economical material. The chalk we stole was used for education in the classroom, and the medium of choice for these drawings was on the walls. When I went on to study art history, I reached a point that the only way that I was going to achieve in this art world was for me to look at my own self and my own experience. How in my own life was art present? My experience was the key component for me to unlocking a whole new language, and a visual vocabulary.”
Today, Rhode uses his absurdist actions to develop humor, and humor, as he puts it, “becomes a mechanism” in which we can speak about more serious matters, such as war society and social conflict.
His work is now on view in three separate locations—at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery (536 W 22 St.) and The Drawing Center in New York City, and in the South Africa pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
At Lehmann Maupin, Rhode celebrates with a solo exhibition, and presents “Borne Frieze.” A play on puns to bring attention to a prominent South African term, “Born Frees” describes the generation born after Apartheid, or “Post-Apartheid Kids.” He also riffs on “born” and offers “borne” to mean carry or to bear, and “frieze” to reference a wall decoration. At this exhibition, he presents Light Giver Light Taker, Chalk Bike, and Monkey with Barbed Wires until August 21.
In addition, he also debuts “Drawing Waves” at The Drawing Center, which depicts a boy surfing out in sea. To accompany this nautical display, Rhode also offers Paries Pictus-Draw The Waves in which he begins by attaching vinyl cutouts of seventeenth century chips—inspired by South Africa’s first colonists’ ship, the East India Company fleet—to the wall. Children eight to ten years old will create the large-scale mural of high swells, which will be recorded by video and then on view. “Drawing Waves” is on view at The Drawing Center until August 30.
Lastly, at the 56th Venice Biennale, “All The World’s Futures,” his work is on view at the South Africa pavilion in the show “Desire: Ideal Narratives in Contemporary South African Art” until November 22.
As shows come and go, Rhode’s approach will remain the same. His imaginative approach will forever set him apart. “It’s my thing,” said Rhode. “I’m not an artist that shifts materials and ideas from one to the next. I stick to the core language—it’s my truth, and there’s a responsibility that comes with truth. I need to be responsible with this language that has been born from a social construct, and responsible to those that were affected by it as well.”